A Week Or Two In Shetland - Part Three: The North Isles
by Alastair Hamilton -
We’ve visited the Shetland mainland and some of the other islands in the first and second parts of this blog. Now it’s time to head farther north to explore the beautiful but very different islands of Yell, Fetlar and Unst.
If you think that getting to them and between them might be complicated or expensive, relax: the ferry services are frequent and can easily be booked in advance, online or by phone, if you wish. The fares won’t make a big dent in your budget, either.
The main road northwards from Lerwick ends at the ferry terminal at Toft. It’s best to allow about 50 minutes for that journey, bearing in mind that if you’ve booked a car on the ferry, you need to be there five minutes before departure. On weekdays, at busier times, the ferries run half-hourly from Toft to Ulsta on Yell.
Yell is sometimes overlooked, because it’s so quick and easy to drive straight through to the next ferry terminal at Gutcher, the port for Fetlar and Unst; it takes just half an hour. But that would be to miss out on what the island has to offer.
For one thing, even by Shetland standards, Yell is Otter Central; if you’re searching for them, it’s worth spending some time taking a close look around the ferry terminal and marina at Ulsta, where they may be seen in among the rock armouring or perhaps dissecting a crab on the marina pontoons. But they can be found all around the island; you might want to go out with one of the local expert guides.
Yell is also of interest to bird-watchers, with an RSPB reserve and plenty of opportunities to spot moorland and wading birds elsewhere, including species such as Red-throated Diver or Golden Plover.
In the south east, around Burravoe, there’s some attractive coastline to explore, and Burravoe is also home to the welcoming Old Haa Museum; it’s a fascinating collection and it also pays tribute to Bobby Tulloch, an exceptional local naturalist and photographer. It offers teas and coffees, too. There’s a very appealing art gallery, the Shetland Gallery, just off the main road at Sellafirth, in the north of the island.
There are some beautiful beaches in Yell, for example at West Sandwick and, farther north, the Sands of Breckon, near Cullivoe.
Lots of walks are possible; indeed, you could spend a couple of days getting the measure of the island. There are plenty of shorter excursions, though, for example to the ‘White Wife’ at Otterswick, a restored figurehead from a shipwreck, or the moving memorial to a fishing disaster at Gloup.
How much time you spend in Yell will obviously depend a lot on your interests, but a visit to the museum, the art gallery, some patient watching for otters and a stroll on one or two of the beaches can easily occupy a day. If you want to explore more of the coastline, you could allow at least another day.
From Gutcher, in the north of Yell, you can head eastwards by ferry to Fetlar, or northwards to Unst.
Much of the south of Fetlar is fertile farmland, something the Vikings seem to have recognised, because the name means ‘fat land’. For visitors, the highlights include some good coastal walking, a beautiful sandy beach at Tresta and the island’s Interpretive Centre, which reveals a great deal about the way of life and some of the people who shaped the island’s history.
There’s a lot for birdwatchers to see on the island, which has a large RSPB reserve. For some years, Snowy Owls were to be seen, but these days the star attractions are the breeding Red-necked Phalaropes, beautiful, dainty little birds that are remarkably tame and can be observed on the lochans and pools in the east of the island, ideally from the RSPB hide.
Fetlar also offers lots of walking possibilities, and although you could spend a relaxing day taking in the more obvious highlights, you could enjoy a longer stay in this beautiful place.
Unst is almost Britain’s northernmost outpost, but not quite. That distinction goes to a modest rock a little to the north of the island, called Out Stack. But Unst is inevitably where you’ll find Britain’s most northerly…well, lots of things: house, bakery, post office, swimming pool, brewery and distillery, to name but a few. It’s also noted for a rich collection of Viking archaeological remains.
Arriving at Belmont, in the south, you’ll notice a splendid Georgian mansion, Belmont House, not far from the road. It’s the finest example of Georgian domestic architecture in the northern isles and it has been immaculately restored by a local trust to provide exceptional self-catering accommodation.
The first settlement on the way north is Uyeasound, to the south-east of the main road; beyond it is Muness Castle, built in 1598 by Laurence Bruce, uncle of the builder of Scalloway Castle, Earl Patrick Stewart. Nearby is the wide beach at Sandwick.
To the left of the main road, a minor road leads to Lund, where there’s another beautiful beach overlooked by an ancient chapel and graveyard, notable as the last resting place of German merchants who plied their trade and ultimately settled in Shetland during the Hanseatic period.
From either Sandwick or Lund, it’s possible to take long coastal walks northwards, with terrific sea views.
The main road continues northwards to Baltasound, the main service centre, which has a shop, bakery and leisure centre. En route, you’ll notice that the vegetation here is very different from the peaty moorland that dominates Yell. We’re on a band of serpentine, typically in colours ranging from pale green to greenish-black, but which oxidises to the yellowish-orange shade seen in areas of scree or rock outcrop. The beach pebbles formed from the rock, for example at Cross Geo, Haroldswick, are exceptionally beautiful. The grass that grows on serpentine-derived soils is short and can seem to have a blue-grey tinge.
Leaving Baltasound, the rather special Unst bus shelter will catch your eye. It’s furnished with all kinds of things and the decoration changes theme from time to time. A little beyond, the land rises to the east, forming the Keen of Hamar, a remarkable scree landscape that seems almost lunar and is the only home of a tiny flowering plant, Edmondston’s Chickweed, named after a distinguished local naturalist who was also the island's doctor.
The next village to the north is Haroldswick; you’ll know you’re nearly there when you pass a replica Viking longship (which you can board) the Skidbladner. In the village, the Unst Boat Haven is well worth a visit. As well as an excellent display of traditional Shetland boats, there’s a wealth of documentary information and photographs that could occupy a visitor for some time. There’s a good tearoom next door, too, offering lunches and very tempting cakes. The spacious Unst Heritage Centre, in the former school, reveals other aspects of Unst’s history, geography, geology and culture. In Haroldswick, too, you’ll find a former RAF base which has been converted to visitor accommodation and is also home to the brewery and distillery.
From Haroldswick, the old RAF road leads up the hill to Saxa Vord, a Cold War radar station that is no longer operational. Leaving the car here, you can follow a track northwards for a good view over Muckle Flugga, with its impressively-sited lighthouse, and Out Stack. If you don’t have time to walk the length of Hermaness, or if the weather is against it, this is the easy way to see the top of Britain.
From Haroldswick, you can alternatively head north again to Norwick and, by taking another minor road to the left, climb over the hill to Skaw, a hamlet consisting of Britain’s most northerly house; it sits just above a beautiful beach.
And there’s a third option: from the junction near the Skidbladner, you can head west and then north to Hermaness, passing the Loch of Cliff on the left. Hermaness is a National Nature Reserve and is renowned for its seabirds and especially the Arctic Skuas that nest on the moorland; but you can also see puffins here. It also offers spectacular views, and if you follow the path to the north end, you’ll look down on Muckle Flugga and Out Stack.
There’s undoubtedly a lot to see in Unst and, even without the longish walk on Hermaness, it’s really not possible to do justice to the island in a day. Two days is really the minimum if you want to get a feel for the place and, if you want to make the best of the long coastal walks, more time would be needed.
That brings us to the end of this three-part blog. As I hope it has demonstrated, there’s so much to see in Shetland that you really need a week, and preferably ten days or a fortnight. Let’s not forget, either, that there are other things to enjoy: if you can catch some of our musicians during your stay, their skill and energy will leave a lasting impression; the Shetland Folk Festival takes place at the end of April and beginning of May. The same is true of our traditional craftspeople – there’s a good craft trail – and if you’re interested in knitwear, it’s worth checking out Shetland Wool Week. There are lots of other events, like our film festival, ScreenPlay or the book festival, WordPlay. There’s some very comfortable accommodation and you can taste our really fresh fish and shellfish or native lamb and beef.
We hope to see you soon!
Posted in: Exploring Shetland